David Heinemeier Hansson

February 28, 2022

The other side of social media

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is at once reaffirming all the ills of social media and showing its utterly unique capacity to give a direct voice to anyone around the world. And while the more unfortunate expressions of this being due to "blue eyes and blond hair", it is fostering a strong sense of fraternity here in Europe. This just is different than a far-away war in Yemen or even Syria. Being upset about the basic human graduation of empathy – that makes us care more about that which is closer and familiar – is an intellectualization straight out of Haidt's WEIRD diagnosis.

Being able to read, in real time, about members of the Ukrainian parliament taking up arms, mixed together with pictures of walking the dog, is a deeply humanizing experience. Seeing Zelenskyy tweeting his calls with world leaders, while vlogging defiant declarations of courage, is simply inspiring.

Contrast this with the Russian PR. Focused, as it is, on the choreographed presentations of its Dear Leader. The impossibly long desks. The gilded halls. The stunted speech. It feels like a 20th century war propaganda machine firing mortars at a 21st century social media machine shooting lasers.

On the ground, of course, the situation is different. Ukraine does not have any lasers. But I think their invaders dramatically underestimated the power of that social media prowess to galvanize support from the West (amongst other underestimations!). The rally behind shutting Russia out of SWIFT, Germany approving both direct delivery of weapons and a dramatic increase in military spending going forward, the joint closing of the air space, and other new sanctions seemingly dropping every hour, does feel like it owes its urgency to the depth of public support the Ukrainian media campaign is fast activating.

Just yesterday my wife was biking home past the neighborhood of the Russian embassy here in Copenhagen. Ten thousand Danes had swamped the street around it to show their displeasure and disgust with the invasion. Danish politicians suggested renaming the street of the Russian embassy to "Ukraine Street" in response. The activation of this kind of popular support in the countries around Europe has been crucial in expediting the political courage to act.

Even the immigration policies in Denmark are being loosened for this crisis. Ukrainian refugees are being welcomed without visas, and the train operators instructed to let them travel for free. Let's just say that this isn't exactly the open arms that Danes have held out to every other crisis around the world. This response is tracking entirely with the public opinion that Ukraine is different because it's European. A response cultivated by this incredibly effective Ukrainian social media campaign.

What does any of this mean, long term? I don't think anyone knows. But as someone who rarely holds back any criticism of social media in general, and Twitter in particular, it's worth taking a moment to appreciate the difference it's making here and now. Even as it's surely also home to fabrications, tall tales, and everything else that comes with the fog of war. Even if a week from now it's something else.

Good, not good. Bad, not bad. Neither, both.